Colin had grown like a weed, his mother had said, and was a half a head taller than the other pre-teen boys in Restov. Which was good, because much more of the work at the stablery was falling upon his broadening shoulders. It was two hours before breakfast and the lad rubbed sleep from his eyes with one hand as the other opened the gate to the western stalls. He’d have to light the lantern, he knew, but for now it was pleasant enough to walk blind on the hay-strewn boards he’d known like his own room and pretend he was still in his warm bed.
His foot came into contact sooner than he’d expected with something softer and more yielding than the expected floor and he clumsily pirouetted to avoid placing the rest of his weight upon it. Doing so, he wound up getting his other foot entangled in something woven and he toppled backward over a high-pitched protesting and frightened bundle.
“Don’t hit me!” cried the voice.
“I just tripped on you. Calm down!” grumbled the wide-awake now Colin. “What are you doing here?”
Colin sensed the figure sitting up, a darker, shorter, shadow in the shadowy stable. “Just s-sleeping, sir. Wasn’t doin’ nothing! Don’t tell!”
Colin regained his feet and felt on the wall for the lantern. He lit it with a practiced strike of the tindertwig from his pocket along the support beam, making a dark line joining the hundreds of others. He wicked it down low and then turned to look down.
He saw a boy, maybe a few years younger than himself, his feet wrapped in rags, unpatched holes in his pants and a ratty felt cloak wrapped around his shoulders. The kid squinted up at the light, pinching up his nose and mouth like he’d tasted something bad. “‘snot even dawn, why ain’t you jus’ lemme sleep?”
“Look, kid,” said Colin, “I need to haul some hay in and some manure out. We have a full stall and all these horses need to be ready to ride out with first light. You can’t sleep here now.”
Seeing an opening, the tatterdemalion tried a grin as he stood up, “So I could do it another time, then?”
Colin lit another lantern low, as the rustle of waking horses began to cascade up and down the stalls. He took down a bale hook from a peg and held it as he replied, “If there’s an empty stall…” He shrugged. “We get in horses in the middle of the night sometimes though. At least you’d hear us coming if you weren’t in the doorway.”
He pointed the hook though and added, trying to sound like his father, “But you steal something? You hurt one of these horses? Or scare them, so they hurt themselves or each other?” He shook the hook back and forth before the skinny boy’s face. He suppressed a grin as the boy watched it and shuddered.
“I wouldn’t do that, mister!” he said. “And.. and anyways, you wouldn’t even knows it was me!”
“You’re the only kid who comes here,” said Colin. “I’ve seen your messes before. You just leave early, usually.”
The boy looked down at his feet and turned to go and Colin ventured, “Why don’t you help me some this morning? Then you could have breakfast. I might even have some old clothes that would fit you.”
At that, the boy snickered. “Work muckin’ horse plops?” he laughed. “Naw thanks, I din’t need any er ’at.” He waved and padded off into the corral.
Colin heard a creak of the corral gate as the boy must have wriggled through the cross-bars. He shook his head and set to work.
(to be continued)